Designing the Space to Cultivate Creative Capacity

By Michael Cohen, The Tech Rabbi

Before surveying educators about whether or not they view themselves as creative, I challenge them to define the word “creativity.” Most define the term as meaning being artistic, musical or gifted in some other act of making something. While these are without question forms of creative expression, they do not define or even represent the essence of what creativity is and by extension could be. This narrow scope associated with creativity pushes many young people away from trying to figure out what creativity is for them and how they can impact the world around them.

So what is creativity? I define it as a mindset. This mindset uses various methods to observe the world, identify problems or challenges, and ideate a solution that, if successful, will bring value to others. Picasso did this through art and Mozart through music, but it also can be accomplished through organizing an event or developing a plan to support learners at varying levels of mastery. Creative capacity can be built without lifting a paintbrush or playing a note. From this realization, we can begin to develop our creativity and help instill the confidence needed for our students to do the same.

Creativity is often associated with thinking “outside the box,” striving to help students engage in nontraditional methods of learning while maintaining the same academic standards as “in the box.” One of my favorite students was just not an in-the-box kid: He built six boxes in the box and made sure his box was safe and secure from any attempts at the unscripted and unknown. He was one of the inspirations that pushed me to publish a book on cultivating creative capacity titled Educated by Design.

I needed to document the principles I hold to when standing up to a challenge and taking it head-on. The principles are organic and stand on their own, and while there are other equally important critical components to building creative capacity, these 10 build on one another and provide everyone the opportunity to reveal their innate creative potential.

1. Creativity is a mindset, not a talent. Remember it starts with a mindset, but the purpose of creativity is to move beyond ideas and turn them into something actionable.

2. Failure is a stop on the journey, not a destination. No one likes failure; those who say otherwise either aren’t trying anything significant, or are so scared of failure that the only way they cope with it is to pretend to love it. Nevertheless, by creating experiences for students where they can fail, grow and build resilience, we give our students, and by extension ourselves, the best chance at bolstering creative problem-solving abilities. Learning should be designed not as a one-time, summative experience but rather as a scaffold of multiple iterations that allow students to reflect and refine their work.

3. Empathy inspires creativity. True creativity is about bringing value to others. How is that value developed? How well does the artist or musician know their audience? How well does their product address the whole person? Teaching empathy is a critical skill for students to be effective problem solvers, communicators and leaders. When you ask someone to define empathy, many times they start defining sympathy instead. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand the unique needs, challenges and realities for someone so you can best support and engage with them on their terms.

4. Collaboration is a prerequisite for innovation. In school, students need to engage in cooperative experiences where they are all accountable for the same scope of work and need to work together to make sure the project is complete. Collaboration isn’t about just working together; it’s about leveraging each group member’s strengths, skills and knowledge to arrive at a more significant outcome. Students need to learn to establish project roles that provide equal value to the project not just in quantity but quality. A great example is having students create video content. There is directing, scriptwriting, filming, editing and post-production. Each phase is vital to the success, but the director rarely sits down and starts editing the footage. When building a technological prototype, you have roles in planning, design, construction, programming and troubleshooting. Once again, each role is critical, and the defined roles result in a richer learning experience and outcome.

5. Ideas should lead to action. Ideas inspire us but they aren’t usable. A big challenge in the world is how to take an idea and develop it into a solution that can be used by others to improve their lives. Schools should empower students to take content knowledge, come up with an idea to solve a problem and then act on it. By challenging students to tackle real-world problems, they can leverage the knowledge and skills gained in the classroom as they brainstorm solutions to problems around them.

6. Technology is just a tool. Technology is part of nearly every facet of our lives. In education, it is critical for us to help our students understand the role of technology as a tool to solve problems and improve experiences. Technology literacy should be a foundation that prepares students to be designers, computational thinkers and problem solvers. To achieve this, students need to learn the electronic tools, methods and apps that help them communicate, collaborate and create powerful content and ideas that bring value to others. Whether it is media creation, app development or programming a sensor, each student needs to develop both a broad and deep understanding of how to leverage technology to solve problems.

7. Don’t wait for permission. Permission can be an enormous roadblock that prevents us from trying new things, taking risks and interfacing with inevitable failure. Permission is the smoke and mirrors that tell us we can’t try until this magical moment of mastery. In school today, students often don’t have a chance to experiment in the unknown, unscripted and undefined.

8. Creativity is a hands-on experience. I cannot emphasize this enough: Students must learn with their hands. They must build things, design things and create things. If students finish your class at the end of the year with only essays, worksheets and exams, then you are missing out on truly making your classroom learning memorable for your students.

9. Put your soul into it. Passion, drive, commitment, determination. However you describe the effort you put into things, there is a certain soul quality that emerges when you truly care about something. If you ask your students tomorrow what they put their soul into, you might be surprised by the answer. You might also be surprised (or not) that the things they put their soul into are not part of school. How we blend those experiences into the classroom, and even more how we create learning experiences that bring the soul to the forefront, will be memorable moments for them. What could learning look like if students put their soul into their work?

10. Stay humble. I once heard an insight that what made Moses humble was not that he thought less of himself, but that he thought more of others. Humility is about looking at ways to engage in the world that put others first.

What does teaching humility look like in our classrooms? How can we shift from learning about others to students engaging in developing their humility through work that directly impacts others? Whether it is students facilitating learning for their peers, helping a friend in need, or creating a social entrepreneurial venture, we owe it to our students to let them build this character trait early on so they can be a positive contributor to society.

Whether we start small (highly recommended) or go all in, the process of building creative capacity is within the reach of everyone, teachers, students and administration alike. What’s important is that we are open to experimenting and exploring what other opportunities can be part of classroom teaching and learning. These 10 principles stand alone and can be built up alone, but together they synthesize the capacity to solve problems and engage in experiences that cannot just positively impact your students but empower them to positively impact the world around them.

Michael Cohen, known as The Tech Rabbi, is a designer and technologist turned educator. As a speaker, writer and creativity instigator, he’s on a mission to help young people develop the creative confidence they need to become challenge seekers and solution designers. He is the author of the book Educated By Design, which outlines his principles for revealing and nurturing our innate creative courage and capacity.

This article first appeared in HaYidion, The Prizmah’ Journal; reprinted with permission.